Sunday, September 30, 2012


by Fred Warren

“Y’say we’re supposed to light-finger these onto the marks?”  Charlie Lone favored Smith with the incredulous glare of a child who might have just been told that gravity makes things fall upward. The other orphans in Smith’s gaggle remained silent, but they looked on with keen curiosity. Un-picking pockets was a novel concept, indeed.

“That’s right. Think of it as lifting in reverse. Each mark will be wearing a golden pin or brooch shaped like a spider. Slip the parcels into their shopping bags, one per customer, but take care you’re not seen doing it, the same as you would when conducting business the usual way.”

“Why should anybody care that we’re giving them something they want?”

“Some people might be upset there aren’t enough for everyone.”

“It still sounds screwy to me. What are we getting out of this?”

“Enough credits to keep your stomach full for a good long time, Charlie m’boy, and the Enforcers off our backs. Just do as I’ve told you, and all will be well.”

Charlie frowned, then lifted one of the palm-sized cubes to his ear and gave it a shake.

“Stop that!”

“It doesn’t feel like there’s anything inside. What is it?”

“None of your business. It’s…delicate. If you break it, we won’t get paid.” Smith took the parcel and stuffed it into the stained cloth satchel slung over the boy’s shoulder. “Right. Take the long way back once you’ve delivered all your parcels. If you’ve not found all the marks in an hour, drop whatever’s left at the fishmonger’s stall. Everybody clear?”

“Yes, Smith,” they chorused.

“Brilliant. Off to the marketplace with you, ones and twos, and keep a cheery look about you. Kate’ll have something special waiting when you return.”

Kate nodded. “Something sweet.”

They all paused for a moment, mouths agape, then scrambled away down the corridor en masse, pushing, shoving, and chattering gleefully.

“Ones and twos!” Smith called halfheartedly after them. “And have a care with those parcels!” He looked over at Kate and shrugged. “What’s the use?”

“She tugged her tattered coat tighter around her body. “I don’t like this. We should be going with them.”

“Wallace didn’t leave me any choice.”

“We all could have bolted. Found another hiding place.”

“He knows the nether corridors as well as I do. He’d be onto us before we settled the first wee one in her cradle. And he’s got a Peacekeeper backing him up now. You know what will happen to the children if we’re taken. We have to do things his way, for now.”

“No good can come of working with Wallace Beadle. What’s in those boxes, anyhow?” Her eyes narrowed. “Snowdrift? Lightshow?”

“Wallace wouldn’t say. I don’t think it’s drugs. They’re cold to the touch and far too light to be packed with anything heavier than aerogel.  I’m thinking it’s egg sacs or dormant larvae. Exotic treats for the upper decks, as if they haven’t enough to eat already.”

“Smuggling is smuggling. If the children are caught, there’s no hope of even the orphanage. They’d be better off dead.”

“They won’t be caught, I promise. Like Charlie said, even if someone notices, they won’t care about our lot giving rather than taking, and the marks want these parcels badly. This’ll be the easiest run we’ve ever had.”

Smith stared into the dark corridor that had already swallowed the children. The easiest run ever. He almost believed it himself.


A leg shot out and hooked Charlie’s foot, sending him sprawling. He pushed himself upright and dusted off his hands and knees, wincing at a scraped palm but heedless of one more rip in his trousers among a dozen others. He reached into his satchel to ensure all six of his assigned parcels were still there. One, two, three, four…uh, oh. Two were leaking something cold and sticky. He pulled them out and tried to smooth the crumpled cubes into shape, but there was no way to hide the tears or the ooze staining their brown paper wrapping. The marks would be angry to find them this way.

He looked up and down the corridor. He was alone. He pushed the damaged parcels beneath a bag of rubbish leaning against the corridor wall and sprinted after his fellows.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


by Jeff C. Carter

Facilities Admin Kelix Tremonti looked at the report on her desk and rubbed her temples.  The nascent undersea vent beneath Port Xenia was mirrored in her rumbling stomach.  She popped an antacid into her mouth and swallowed, dropping it into the scalding rift below. 

Why hadn’t she taken the job at Zirconia? She thought for the millionth time.  She ran through her mantra of self justification; Zirconia practically runs itself.  An Admin can’t make a name for herself there.  Port Xenia is a work in progress, a place where a Facilities Admin could build a career.  She shook her head in disgust.  If that seafloor vent erupted it would cut more than just her career short.

“Mr. Tolliver to see you,” her secretary announced through the intercom. 

Tremonti dumped the report into a drawer and sat up straight. “Send him in.”

The door opened to reveal Mr. Tolliver, a tall, well built man with dark skin and a glowing smile. Everything about him seemed to shine, from the exquisite fabric of his luxury suit to the polished jewelry on his fingers. 

“Mr. Tolliver, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said.

“Please, call me Anansi,” he purred.

“I hope your trip was a pleasant one.  Is this your first visit to Port Xenia?”

“As a matter of fact it is, and I had no idea how charming it would be.  Such potential!”  he gushed.

Good, he wants to get straight to business, Tremonti thought. “We like to think so.  I am eager to hear more about your group’s proposal.”

Mr. Tolliver beamed his winning smile and gestured towards the door. “Might we tour your great city while we talk?”

Tremonti stood and reached for her hard hat out of habit.  She looked at Mr. Tolliver’s magnificent suit and hair and decided to leave the helmets behind. She led them in a circuitous route, avoiding the passageways with water stained walls, the dank chambers of stale air and the alcoves dotted with stubborn pale blossoms of mold.

“We believe that Port Xenia is well positioned for development.  It is already the entertainment destination for nearby Trinity.  Why isn’t it drawing in people from everywhere?” he asked.  “After all, you can deliver an experience that Zirconia simply can’t.”

“What did you have in mind?” she asked.

They approached the cool undulating light of the first view port. “Port Xenia has the highest per capita angel sightings.”

Tremonti barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes. “That’s debatable.  Your group…they’re not affiliated with the Blue Liberation Front, are they?” She steered Mr. Tolliver away from the view port so that he would not see the grey seeps of sewage that occasionally welled up on deep sea currents.

“Certainly not, but they make some good points, don’t they?  The oceans belong to the angels.  That’s what drives tourism.  Imagine a system of tunnels running through the city where angels swam freely among the citizens.  Think of the industry that would promote.”

A burning wave shot up to the back of Tremonti’s throat and she choked it down.  Was this guy a crackpot? “That is certainly…ambitious.  The engineering challenges would be tremendous.  The amount of money...”

Mr. Tolliver cut her off. “We want to make Port Xenia the jewel of Eclectia, a place where people can have a true native experience in comfort and style.  It will be an embassy for Avenir, a university for the wizards, and the only tourist destination in the Ceti system.  We need someone who knows this city like the back of her hand, someone with vision and ambition.  What do you say?”

They stood before the wide glass wall of the observation deck and bathed in the blue green light of the seemingly infinite expanse beyond.  Glittering submarine traffic darted in all directions, a jumble of shining submersibles and bioluminescent creatures.

“We’d need to seriously reinforce the outer hull before we began restructuring anything inside.”

“I’m sure you know what’s best.  Do we have a deal?” Mr. Tolliver smiled and extended a hand.

Maybe these wackos will be good for something before the money runs dry, she thought.  She shook his hand and felt her stomach finally settle down. “It’s a deal.  If you don’t mind waiting here for a moment, I’ll check on our shuttle for the tour outside.”

Mr. Tolliver nodded and waited until Tremonti was gone.  He pulled a handset from his wrist that crackled briefly as it sent a short signal burst up to Avenir station. He dropped the winning smile from his face, discarding it like a garment no longer needed.  The warbling tone in his ear announced that an encrypted channel was now open. 

“It’s done.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


by Jeff Chapman -

“The way I see it,” said the young, bearded man, “that old crone owed me a favor.” He rotated his spear, turning the mammothbug steak skewered on the end, cauterizing the edge of the meat in the flames of a lavabush fire.

The other man sharing the campfire raised his eyebrows. He was older. His brown hair was receding to gray and he boasted a scar that began at his forehead and crossed his nose before wrapping around his cheek. “I guess you’d have to see it that way, Jack.”

“That bug came within a few meters of smashing her,” said Jack.

“But you both made the kill. You’re lucky she didn’t ambush you.”

“I thought of that.” Jack leaned over and poked his companion in the ribs. “You don’t get to be old without thinking like a hunter, right, old man?”

Jack’s harsh cackle grated on the older man’s ears.

“I took the long way out,” said Jack. “Never saw her again.”

“You weren’t really gonna shoot her were you?”

Jack Shadrow touched his steak to test its warmth then thrust it back in the flames. “Don’t know. A scythegun would have made quite a mess of her.”

Carl Bonhom rotated his steak a quarter turn. The fire snapped, leaping to snatch the dripping grease. He wondered how far he could trust Jack. Should have let the woman have the legs. Hunters needed friends, not enemies.

The two men rested in a shallow recess below a lava rock outcropping, their backs to rock, their faces to fire. Parked to their left was a biodiesel lava-rover with a trailer hitched to the back. Ropes secured a pile of neatly wrapped bundles--the edible parts of two mammothbugs. The pile swelled higher than the roof of the rover. Jack and Carl had done well.

Beyond the fire’s halo loomed the cold blackness of a winter night. Neither hunter had ever trekked out this far, but the abundance of an untapped hunting ground justified the expense of the truck and the fuel and the risk. Tomorrow they would start home, a three-day journey over rock, through drifts of ash-stained black sand, and around crevices to the Palmer Trading Company camp at Adagio, where they would trade the squishy meat for solid coins. Jack would get drunk on his earnings at Maddie’s—if she would let him—and Carl would get tipsy and they would point at landmarks on a map as they planned their next foray. At least that’s what Carl expected to happen. He chewed the cooked edges of his meat while he pretended to listen to Jack prattle on about his exploits in an Adagio brothel.

“You should join me,” said Jack. “There’s a couple mature ladies there that I’m sure you would enjoy.”

Carl grunted. Jack was such an idiot, but he handled a scythegun and power saw with such consummate skill that Carl would be more of an idiot not to partner with him. “My daughter’s tuition at Trinity is due soon. I can’t afford to waste any money.”

“As much as we’re going to make on these hauls, you could send a few of the brothel girls to university. Give your daughter some company.”

Carl scowled at the association.

Jack cackled but a moaning somewhere out in the blackness cut the laughter short. A punctuating shriek brought both men to their feet.

“What was that?” said Jack.

Carl absently allowed his steak to sink into the fire where the edges of the meat bubbled and blackened. His chest tightened and every experienced nerve in his aging body told him something was wrong, that there was something to fear.

“Sounded like a mammothbug,” said Carl.

“Can’t be. They’re diurnal.”

“I know.” Carl sensed movement to his right. “Aaiiieee!” A biscorpiabug--the length and thickness of a man’s thigh--scurried toward the fire. The red, venomous stringers on the ends of its bifurcated tail arched over its body. Carl slammed his spear down on the intruder, scalding it with the hot meat. The bug stung the steak as it writhed to escape until Carl skewered its abdomen with the spear point, putting an end to it.

“So much for that dinner,” said Jack. “Those things are afraid of fire.”

Carl stared at the dead bug. Dark yellow juice oozed from its splintered carapace. He’d heard that these bugs added a new segment to their length as they grew. This one had lots of segments, an old mature one, kind of like him, and you didn’t get to be old doing stupid things like running toward a fire.

“They are,” answered Carl. Sweat slicked his skin which stuck to his clothes. “Or should be. Something’s wrong, Jack.”

The shriek sounded again, but closer, streaking through the darkness like the bolt from a crossbow. Both men grabbed their scytheguns.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Disaster Aversion

by Travis Perry

Adagio Mayor Edard Jonzn’s mind raced for a solution. A tsunami coming in, the west water gate damaged and open—open at his command, no less. The tidal wave would push into the harbor and sweep east across it—he saw it in his mind’s eye—to the lower land on that side…where his office stood…which held the conference room where the Avenir governor and the Zirconia deputy mayor, “Lieutenant” MacBane, ostensibly still waited.

Jonzn barked some quick orders over the phone to his engineer and sprinted out of his ashbrick office, through the white-conch painted doorway into the next building over, which held the conference room. At the polished bronze table sat the Avenir governor in his own chair, resplendent in his fancy nanoweave suit, his eyes wide in shock, his face drained white, along with two of his so-called Ministers.

“Where’s MacBane?” shouted Jonzn.

“I…I don’t know,” said the governor. “He left.”

Jonzn charged back out of the room, out of the building, his heavy belly jiggling in his too-tight gray suit made of Zirconia cotton. Down the hill toward the nearest sea dock he ran.

MacBane stood outside his personal submarine, in the act of stepping into in, its motors already powered up, as Jonzn shouted down, “Wait! I need your help!”

The Zirconian official paused, clearly considering pushing off without Jonzn. Instead, he answered, “Hurry up! The bay is already receding.”

Jonzn saw it too…water pulling back, out of the bay…only to come back not long from now with a vengeance. He hit the end of the dock and literally jumped into the sub, landing on his hands and knees and scrambling back up to the nearest seat.

“Seal the hatch!” shouted the pilot from the single seat right behind the two round windows on the left and the right sides of the nose of the sub. “Shove off—I’ll get it!” snapped back MacBane and the pilot did as he was told, the boat flying forward on the surface of the bay, twin propellers thrusting it ahead in a roar of biomass diesel. Water sloshed ankle-deep into the vessel before the Lieutenant sealed the door, which swung down from an overhead hinge.
onzn had always called himself an agnostic, but was seriously reconsidering the value of prayer…Dear God, dear God, dear God…let there be enough water to make it to the gate!

The submarine drove forward on the surface, headed for the west gate. Jonzn explained his plan in brief words.

MacBane tapped his lips with the end of the bugizzard cigar he’d been chewing. “It might work. There’s a hook near the tail for the chain. But if there’s not enough water at the gate…” his voice trailed off.

The chief engineer and five of his men were fixing the heavy steel chain to two rings on the inside edge of the western watergate—only the inside of the gate had the walkway where they could access it—just as the submarine pulled up alongside, careful not to get too close to the shore on the left side. MacBane broke the seal of the door and swung it up enough for Jonzn to shout instructions, new water sloshing in. 

The bay had receded but there remained for the moment enough water by the gate for the submarine to function. The engineer crew hooked the chain to rear of the sub and without further command the pilot pushed his throttle lever ahead as the lieutenant resealed the door. Once the chain pulled taut, confirmed by shouting and waving engineers, the pilot pushed the lever as far down as it would go and the engines roared like thunder.

The watergate, designed to roll on a track with relative ease, began to move…just a bit. The submarine jerked and shuddered as its propellers bit into the still-receding water…and the gate moved more, more quickly now. It needed to make it just over four hundred meters.

“Dear God, dear God, dear God,” chanted Jonzn, his hands pressed to either side of his stubble-whiskered plump face, rocking back and forth in the passenger seat to the right of MacBane. A round portal window on his side of the sub faced away from the action of the moving gate, but gave him full view of Adagio and its harbor…which was mostly dry land by now…fishing vessels stranded on a downward-pointing curve.

Now the gate must be moving quickly, for the submarine started accelerating and the chain hadn’t broken or come loose. Jonzn’s prayers ceased and a smile tugged at the corner of his lips, in spite of his still-pounding heart.

Then the submarine hit ground with a horrible scraping and ground to a halt. The gate, however, contained considerably more inertia than the submarine. It kept plowing ahead, its end now visible in the pilot’s portside window as Jonzn looked forward.

The chain, which had gone loose as the massive gate caught up to the ten meter submarine that had pulled it, went taut again as the huge wall of the water gate passed it, rolling smoothly on its track. The chain twisted the sub around violently, now pointing tail first, and the rolling gate jerked the vessel along behind and began dragging it through the mud and rocks that once had been deep underwater in Adagio harbor.

As the submarine jerked and scraped with the horrible scream of tortured steel, Edard Jonzn instantly rediscovered the value of prayer. As he bounced, the submarine scraped, as he prayed and cursed, some part of him still looked out his portal window, which now faced the gate. The gate was beginning to slow, it was slowing, the dragged submarine acting as its brake…it would not make the last hundred meters or so to closure with the east gate…it would not make it…dear God, dear God.

And Jonzn then noticed some sort of structure on the floor of the harbor not far from the gate. A stone archway…as if some ancient civilization had built something in the bay, now revealed by the emptied water. But Jonzn knew that wasn’t the case, there had been no ancient civilization…or he thought he knew.

Looking through his portal window, the only one looking out that side of the sub, Jonzn saw stepping through the doorway a man with golden hair and a golden sword in his hands. In a single effortless motion he slashed the chain dragging the submarine and stepped back into the arch. Then both the man, and it, vanished from view. Jonzn’s mind assumed the sub had moved somehow so the arch was no longer in view. But later he realized that wasn’t what happened at all.

The gate kept rolling, slowly rolling, to closure, meeting the east gate at the center of the harbor.


The gate had closed just before the tsunami hit, saving Adagio. And not too hard, either, since Jonzn realized that in his original plan, the submarine would have been trying to slow the gate as it hurled shut and probably would not have been able to undo built up inertia in time—dragging the submarine for over one hundred meters had barely managed to slow it just enough. If things had worked the way he’d planned them, he would have smashed the ends of the gates to smithereens,  the west gate rolling closed far too fast, which would have been its own disaster, destroying the center where the gates met…like how the Zirconian submarine had been destroyed. He owed Zirconia, more than ever, for the use of that vessel—that was for sure. He tried to put out of his mind the other help that had come literally from the middle of nowhere.

He and his chief engineer stood over a rough metal table in the engineering gatehouse, examining the ends of a sliced chain. The man turned to him, “Boss, what I can’t figure is how you would have done it. Maybe with explosives or something you could, not that you had any on you that I know of—but it wouldn’t turn out like this at all.” The separated pieces of chain were perfectly smooth, mirrored metal, as if cut with a high-powered laser.

Jonzn took three quick drags on his cigar and laughed. “Now, now, you can’t ‘spect me to give up all my secrets, Fred. Maybe I cut that chain out there and maybe I didn’t. I didn’t get in the position I’m in by tellin’ everything I know.”

With a grin he added, “Which won’t keep me from taking all the credit, of course.” He winked at the engineer, puffing cigar smoke.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


by Jeff C. Carter

Customs Officer Brantry tapped the switch on the conveyor belt to roll the next package into the screener.  Dros, the grizzled smuggler following the crate, gave him a conspiratorial nod.

“Organic goods.  Soft scan only, please,” Dros said.

Brantry slapped a yellow button on the side of the screener and pinged the crate with a brief burst of radiation.

A grainy hologram of large clustered spheres appeared in front of Brantry but he waved it out of existence before anyone else saw.  Live insect eggs were contraband on Avenir, but the aristocracy had an endless appetite for such delicacies.  It took Brantry three approachings of tedious work to earn as much as he did letting a package slip through.  He might not ever be able to afford a high class life aboard the Avenir, but he was determined to retire to Zirconia in style.

“Your shipment has been sterilized and entered into the quarantine queue.  We’ll notify you when it’s ready,” Brantry said, loud enough for anyone who might be listening.

He flipped up the lid of the crate to lay the falsified quarantine seal upon the cargo.  The light struck the aerogel packing around the insect eggs and a disturbing shadow caught his eye.  These weren’t typical Honey Beetle eggs.  They were larger, with too many legs radiating from their dim silhouettes. 

Brantry slammed down the lid of the crate and hissed at the smuggler. “Are you insane?  I can’t let this through!”

Dros glared at the customs officer but dared not call attention to himself.

Brantry punched the red button to initiate deep sterilization.  The machine did not respond.

A low voice from behind Brantry sent a chill racing up his back. “Is there a problem, officer?”

Brantry turned to see a well dressed man standing in the restricted area of customs.  This was undoubtedly the aristocrat seeking the egg sacs. “I’m sorry.  There has been a mistake -- these are… spiders,” Brantry whispered.

There was no hint of surprise in the aristocrat’s expression, and now Brantry recognized his face.  Lancet Palmar VIII, scion of the Palmar dynasty.  Was this the latest status symbol, consuming the rarest, most dangerous and most expensive eggs?

“My fee has tripled,” Brantry said, a small tremor in his voice.

The aristocrat casually nodded and walked away. 

Brantry let the conveyor belt whisk the crate through customs.  He licked his lips, wondering how sweet the spider eggs must taste.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Beautiful Thing

by J.L. Rowan -

Elmerin stood within the shadows of an abandoned corridor and gazed down its length at the little girl cowering behind a broken table.  She squeezed shut her eyes as though her inability to see the world would protect her from its evils.

He’d been spying on her of a night, when his duties ended and he was free to take his rest.  Tegan was small, smaller than any other child on Avenir, and undernourished, a mere wisp of humanity, leaving her easy prey.  But she’d surprised him.  She knew more places to hide than the engineers who had built the ship.  He left food for her in those secret places, but it was no longer enough.

A scrape of metal and a muttered curse drew his gaze to the end of the corridor.  A trader stalked in, a strap of leather in his hand.  “Where are you, you brat?  I know you’re here!”

Elmerin clenched his fists and stepped into the light of the Whale.  “No one is here, sir.  No one but me.”

The trader started back.  “My lord wizard, I—a girl came this way—”

“No girl came here,” Elmerin said.  “Leave.  The next Approaching will soon be upon us.  I require solitude.”

A look passed over the trader’s face, a panoply of rage that stopped the breath in Elmerin’s throat.  With a snarl, he spun on his heel and disappeared.

Elmerin crossed to the table and knelt.  “He has gone, child.”

Tegan uncurled, blinking, lifting her teary gaze to his.  Her eyes widened, and she stared at him.  “She told me you would come.  She showed you to me, and told me you would come.”

A chill seized him.  “Who?  Who told you this?”

“I don’t know.  She lives in the waves, and comes when I sleep.”  She touched his face gingerly, as though he would vanish if she pressed too hard.

A sharp, bitter taste surged in the back of his throat.  “They speak to you?  A child?”  He could hardly whisper the words.

“She said you would save me.”  And she threw herself into his arms and clung to his neck.

He closed his eyes.  He couldn’t let jealousy take from her the only beautiful thing she had ever known.  He held her close.  “Of course I will save you.”  He rose, lifting her in his arms.  “No one will ever hurt you again, I promise.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

High Country 3--Penance

by Walt Staples -

“You realize of course, they’ll all think I bought my way back in,” Torn Herdmaster Morgan’s tone was bitter.

Father Mack looked at him with unconcern. “Do you really think people are going to seriously believe that, should the Archbishop lift the Interdict? Archbishop Siegfried Nicholas? ‘Nick the Dragon Slayer?’ Simony?

The hawk-faced man rolled that thought around for a moment. He gusted out a breath and shook his head. “Nay. ‘Tis truth. The lizard killer wouldn’t. He’d strike off the hand that bears his ring first.” He settled himself to bargain. “How much?”

The pastor leaned back in his chair and interlaced his nine fingers over his ample belly. The stub of his right middle finger, a souvenir of a miscue involving a rope and a beetle in younger days, marred their symmetry. “First, there is the matter of repentance. You are sorry for what you have done, and what you allowed your family to do?”

“And if I told you I nay give a fig?”

Father Mack tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, and regarded the Crucifix on the wall behind the herdmaster. “I would say that you were most likely speaking God’s simple truth, Morgan.” He paused. “But it’s not that simple is it?”

The other looked down at his unconsciously clinched hands. “Nay,” he whispered. “It nay be that simple.” He looked back up to meet the priest’s eye. “My sister’s third, the thoughtful one, cries every Sunday morning because he can’t serve at Mass. My daughter and my wife speak not to me because she can’t marry Cricket Bree’s Donald.” He snorted and grinned ruefully. “To think, a man could come to miss the wagging of women’s tongues.” His voice dropped back to a whisper. “And the look I get from the herdmaster of Cricket Bree. I walk into the tavern or Palmer’s and he and his family walk out. They say nay word, but the look...”

The Pastor of Bugtussle leaned forward and asked gently, “But, are you sorry, Morgan?”

The herdmaster sat upright and raised his eyebrows, gripping the arms of his chair. “Oh, aye. I’m sorry. I’m most sorry the Archbishop placed my family under Interdict.” He frowned. “To nay receive Communion. To nay be married within the Church. To nay have our little ones baptized--”

That is a lie, Morgan,” Father Mack suddenly flared. “They are baptized...the Christening is not celebrated.”

The herdmaster regarded him for a moment, then inclined his head. “Aye, I spoke out of turn. They can get into Heaven.” He took a deep breath. “What is to be done, then?”

The pastor looked at him and thought for several minutes. He came to a conclusion. “Perfect penance requires perfect contrition. Without it, there is no forgiveness. Morgan, you are an evil man in that you have done evil and have not repented of it. You are in a state of sin. But...I will grant that you are also a truthful man. Hypocrisy is one sin I doubt I’ll ever hear of you in Confession.” He rose to his feet. “I will inform his Grace that, while you fail to express perfect contrition, the rest of Family Torn does indeed. I will advise that the Interdict be lifted from your family, but that you, Morgan, remain under it.”

Torn Herdmaster Morgan also stood. He tilted his head and looked at Father Mack for a moment, then said. “Aye, it is a fair decision. That’s all that I could ask. Now, how much?”

The pastor placed his hands within the sleeves of his black habit. “For each member of Family Torn, one rosary a day for those in need, by those of age, until the Feast of Saint Chuck de Yeager. Whether you pray it is, of course, optional. Also, you will provide funds to those who are in need of help when I will inform you from time to time.”

The other smiled grimly. “Your slush-fund.”

“My holy slush-fund. I used some recently to pay the way for a family to be present at their son’s Publication on Sheba, at the Abbey of Jerome.

“Now, we’ve some catching up to do. I’ll announce the first banns for Donald and Katta this Sunday. And tell your nephew, Oskar, I want him in the Sacristy an hour before Mass—mind you, one hour. I do not appreciate a server who’s still puffing so hard he splatters candle wax in all directions. Also, I think Monday, we’ll celebrate that suspended funeral Mass for your Aunt Edna.”

The herdmaster brightened. “Good, maybe then she’ll let off caterwauling in my bedchamber every night and I can get some sleep.”

Father Mack stopped and looked Morgan in the eye. “You do realize that you may not take part in the wedding so long as you are under Interdict?”

Morgan looked at the floor. “Yes, I know, Father.”

The pastor nodded once. “Good, we understand each other. I’ll show you out.” As they crossed the rear of Our Lady of Bugtussle, Father Mack stopped, pointed toward the altar, and said in a conversational manner, “You know, there’s a slit in that hanging behind the Crucifix that I’ve got to mend one of these days when I get around to it. If a person were to stand behind it, they could see everything that goes on without actually being in the body of the church.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Sickening Plunge Part 4

by Jeff C. Carter

When Lancet opened his eyes the morgue was empty.  He was completely alone.  Even his constant companion, his smart sword, was gone.

"Hello, Lancet."

A tall, older man in an archaic gray wool suit appeared.  He was bald, with creases around his eyes and mouth but an upright posture that made his age hard to guess.  He smiled reassuringly, yet Lancet saw something calculating and not quite human behind his eyes.

Lancet felt trapped and defenseless.  He involuntarily groped for his missing weapon.

"Ah, one moment," the old man smiled.

There was a tingling in Lancet’s head and suddenly his sword was back, nuzzled against his body. He could feel every part of it, as if the sword had truly become an extension of him at last.

"Are you Beebe?" Lancet asked the stranger.

The old man put a hand on Lancet's shoulder and gave him a grandfatherly squeeze. "I am.  It is so good to see you, lad."

"Are you... a Dreamer?"

Beebe smiled cryptically. "I've certainly dreamed of this moment.  I've known your family for a very long time.  I've watched you grow, seen you become the kind of man who could change the course of history, as your ancestors once did.  I knew I could trust you to step forward now, to do what must be done."

Lancet had waited his entire life to hear those words.  His heart filled with pride but his stomach clenched in uneasy anticipation.  He could feel that he was no longer in control of his life.  He was rapidly being swept away by the tide of fate.

One by one, Moab, Anansi, and the doctor blinked into visibility, looking shaken and confused.  The wizard Pavlovon appeared in several places at once.  Was this her ‘distributed intelligence’?

"Hello again, everyone.  This is an encrypted simulation space.  We are now in direct mental contact via your new implants.  In case you haven't guessed, I am Beebe.  I am pleased to report that no one was compromised by alien influence, and that each of you has my complete trust and undying gratitude.
"Here is what we know:  the aliens have infiltrated society with their followers, dupes, and parasite infested thralls.  They believe that Eclectia is doomed.  They want to accelerate this apocalypse, and with access to our technology they might very well succeed.

"I did not choose you to root out the infestation or declare a pointless war.  I gathered you for your talent, your leadership and your vision.  You believe, as I do, that humanity is destined for more.  This alien threat has the potential to rock our stagnated society to its foundation.  We are the ones who shall decide which pieces remain and how they fit together,” Beebe said.   

"So we're going to use these Rahab maniacs to light a fire under their butts?" Moab stroked his mustache approvingly.

Beebe gave him a knowing smile. "Never let a crisis go to waste."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Encoded Vellum

by Jeff Chapman

Brother Sebastian Norwich observed the rise and fall of the thermal blanket covering the old man’s torso and legs. That something made from minerals hacked out of rock could be soft and comforting never ceased to amaze the young medico. A monitor mounted on the white wall above the bed displayed the man’s vitals—stable but weak. A cyclops scanner—so named for its single, pulsing, blue eye—whirred and clicked as its gaze travelled up and down the length of the man’s body.

Brother Sebastian had removed the oxygen mask an hour ago. Tubes for feeding, hydration, and disposal disappeared beneath the blanket. Rising hues of tan and ochre had beaten back the man’s initial pallor. One might think him simply asleep, not locked in a coma. Considering the man was a day from death when he arrived at Lazarus House a fortnight ago, Sebastian was much pleased with his patient’s progress, but only prayers could help him now.

Sebastian turned his attention to the curious manuscript that arrived with the old man, strapped to his chest like an instruction manual. The pages were stiff but malleable and crinkled as Sebastian turned them, like nothing he had ever handled before. The unfamiliar sound, deafening in this wing of the House reserved for the sickest patients, set him ill at ease, so he tried to be quiet as if he delved where he should not be trespassing. Row after row of uniform characters in some dark yellow ink packed the pages. Stray Greek and Hebrew letters stood out amidst the scribbles like rubies and sapphires in a bowl of white marbles. The man must be a priest or a scholar of ancient languages, he surmised, but he wagered only a priest would trust Greek and Hebrew.

He translated the familiar letters, recording them on the touchscreen of his notepad to test his theory that the scribe embedded meaning in the white noise of the unrecognizable scribbles. When he finished a page, he scanned the string of letters, expecting them to snap into words, a message to shout at him, but all he heard was a noise of random sounds. Simple letter shifts up and down yielded nothing more. Perhaps the Greek and Hebrew was the noise or the old man was simply insane.

“How is our mystery patient?”

Sebastian dropped his notepad, which bounced once on the tile floor. Its shock resistant rubberized case absorbed the impact.

“Brother Peter.”

The director of the infirmary, Brother Peter An Loc Maria, stepped into the sickroom which now seemed very crowded. Peter smiled at Sebastian, whose hand still rested on the open manuscript, and raised his eyebrows.

Sebastian reached to close the book but stayed his hand. He stood to answer the director. He felt less like a child caught sinning when he looked across at his superior rather than up. “He’s stable but very weak. To be expected. I’ve been watching after I removed the oxygen mask. He’s a tough one.”

Peter nodded. “Any hope?”

“He’s in God’s hands now. Always was, I should say.”

Peter smiled, his almond-shaped eyes nearly squinting shut, and slapped Sebastian’s shoulder. “We are but humble instruments. I’ve arranged a mass to be said for him tomorrow morning.”

Sebastian nodded.

“And what of his manuscript?”

“It’s like a puzzle.”

“We must learn what we can about a patient. If he cannot talk, we must read what he has written.”

Sebastian summarized his investigation and theory that the man was a priest. “He must be at least seventy Foundings.”

Peter nodded. “Interesting. We should check the chronicles for missing priests.” He turned a page and scanned the text. “This must be how vellum felt to the scribes working in the monasteries of the ancient past. Fitting that as we race into the future, we find the past.”

“And can’t understand it,” added Sebastian.

Peter grunted.

“Do you think it’s important?” said Sebastian.

“Very much. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble. The Abbot should be along shortly. If he agrees, we can put all the students to work on it. Give them something challenging and new.”

They discussed the other patients under Sebastian’s care as they waited. Then the Abbot’s staff clicked on the tile in the hall as he approached. The staff, a gift from an old hunter, was carved from the carapace of some giant beetle and adorned with a simple cross on top.

“Brother Peter. Brother Sebastian.” The Abbot, Brother Anthony Mary de Guadalcanal, leaned against the door frame, gripping his staff with both hands, and panted from the exertion of his walk. “Blessings.” The director and medico echoed the greeting. The Abbot was the last of his generation and joked that what he lacked in skill and knowledge the Lord had compensated him with longevity. “So this is our mystery patient?”

Peter and Sebastian parted as the Abbot took a heavy step forward to look at the old man.

The Abbot’s eyes grew wide and his staff clattered on the floor. “Mother of God.”

Thursday, September 6, 2012

School Begins

by H. A. Titus

"C'mon, Cog, I said eight sharp! Where are you?"

Cara muttered the phrase for what seemed the thousandth time. Pieter turned away from tinkering with the navigation console.

"Maybe he decided not to come."

"He has to come. How will anyone take us seriously if the only one you ever teach is me?"

"Then you'll be the only orphan to ever fly a ship, and everyone else will wish they'd taken advantage of it while they could." Why was she making this into such a big deal? Pieter turned back to the console before he snapped at her.

He'd woken up in a grim mood, thanks to his continuing dreams about Amaris. He had no idea why her memory continued to dog him, and it was enough to make him dread sleeping.

"Oh, there they are!" Cara darted out onto the dock.

Pieter stood and looked out a porthole to assess his two new students. Cara was shaking the hand of a girl perhaps two Foundings younger than her. The girl had kinky-curly blond hair and seemed just as chattery as Cara, though she used big gestures on top of it.

A boy several Foundings older than Cara hung back behind the two girls, fiddling with the welding goggles pushed back in his shock of red hair.

With a shock, Pieter realized the boy's other hand, hanging down at his side, was metal. How had an orphan come by an expensive prosthetic like that? Of course, it wasn't covered with synthetic skin, but Pieter doubted anyone other than the richest Aristocrat could afford skin grown in Avenir's nano-factories. His own father certainly hadn't been able to afford the skin for his prosthetic.

What were the odds that there were now two non-cyborgs in his life that had metal prosthetic limbs?
The trio came up the gangway, and Pieter stepped away from the porthole. The blond girl's gasp was loud and amazed as she entered the Anchor.

"We get to learn to fly this?" she squealed.

"Eventually," Pieter said.

The girl helped and jumped, spinning in mid-air to face him. Her face was bright red.

"Pieter." Cara stepped up. "This is Clock." She nodded to  the girl. "And her brother, Cog."

Pieter tried to keep from staring at Cog's metal hand. "Welcome aboard the Anchor."

"She's a pretty little ship," Cog offered.

Pieter smiled. "Thanks."

"So, what do we get to do today?" Cara asked.

Her impatience made Pieter shake his head. "What positions would you eventually want?"

Clock cocked her head to one side.

He explained. "I can teach you a lot about piloting and maintenance, enough to get into a ship's position, but I don't know enough about navigation to get you on a ship--you'll have to start as a different position and find someone who is willing to mentor you."

"What about gunner?" Cara asked.

"I could teach you that, if you really want to know. It's fairly basic."

"Well, I know what I want," Cog said. "Anything you can teach me."

Pieter raised his eyebrows.

"Maintenance sounds the best choice for me, but the more I know about the ship, the easier I can fix it. Not to mention that it makes me more valuable as a crew member."

"Maintenance," Pieter said dubiously. Hardly the most glamorous choice, one he'd expected.

"It'd be perfect for him," Clock piped up. "He already knows a lot of the basics and has taught me. He even built his hand."

"Cloooock!" Cog moaned, his face turning a shade that clashed with his hair.

He'd built the metal hand? Pieter rubbed his jaw. That meant Cog knew a lot more than the 'basics', whatever his sister claimed. He could very well have a genius on his hands. The thought made him wince.

Before he could say anything, Cara said, "Cog makes sense. Maybe you should teach everything to all of us, Pieter."

Clock nodded, her curls bouncing every which-way around her head.

Pieter stared at the three. What had he gotten himself into? These kids were asking for knowledge that had taken him several years to acquire. Were they up for that? He knew orphans. They were usually content to slide by on the smallest amount of effort. That's why so many of them stuck to the streets, ignoring the orphanages' offers of education and jobs.

But Cara had already stuck with him for several weeks. And Cog--that metal hand didn't speak of someone who was content with sloppy work. If Clock was anything like her brother...

"It could take a long time to learn all of that," Pieter told them. "Several years at the least, if you work hard and are diligent about coming every day."

All three kids bobbed their heads.

"Okay then." Pieter gave them a small grin. Maybe everything would work out. "Then let Avenir's first Orphans' School of Flying begin!"

The kids surprised him by giving loud cheers and jumping up and down, their fists pumping. Pieter watched them celebrate and felt his grin stretching wider. For the first time since he'd met her, he had a feeling he was doing something that Amaris would approve of.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Sickening Plunge Part 3

by Jeff C. Carter

Everyone in the morgue was struck silent by Beebe’s announcement.  Lancet’s heart skipped a beat and he felt a fleeting kinship with the dead body laid out nearby.

“If the angels did cause the riots they must have used those spinal parasites to boost their psychic signals,” Anansi stated confidently, “Is that why you brought us inside Sheba?  Their signals can’t reach here?”

Lancet frowned.  He was irked that Anansi was putting things together faster than he was.

“That is correct,” the wizard finally sparked to life, “Although we have taken other precautions as well.  We cannot assume Sheba is secure, merely furthest from the signals.  We know a good deal about this thanks to the late Mr. Jon Valljon.”

She indicated the body on the slab.  Dr. Kes peeled back the side of Valljon’s head and exposed a cratered brain, filled with tangles of gleaming circuitry and the oily tendrils of a dead parasite. “Luckily for us he had a standard servant control implant in his head long before he was infected.  Not only was the chip ultimately able to override the parasite’s control, but we were able to pull memories of the alien transmissions directly from his brain.”

“Control implants allow me to monitor the hostile aliens in secret.  They will also protect you from coming under their control.  Pavlovon will fit you each with such a device,” Beebe said.

The wizard hefted a sinister gun with a long drill bit and smiled obligingly.

“You can’t be serious?” Councilman Moab gasped.

Lancet thought about the agonized look on Valljon’s face as the implant shut down his brain.  Everyone took a step back from the wizard.  Even Anansi’s smile was replaced by shock.

“I’m sorry, but this is not a request.  Any one of you could already be under alien influence.  Until we know for certain I cannot allow any of you to leave Sheba,” Beebe said.

Lancet knew this was just a step towards Beebe’s master plan.  He knew that they would have to fill this morgue a thousand times over to make it a reality.  If he was going to commit himself to this cause then he must be willing to start with his own body if necessary. “I’ll go first.”

Pavlovon lifted the drill and aimed it at Lancet's right eyeball. The wizard's face was blank again, her thick black goggles staring somewhere else entirely.

As the drill bit veered closer to his eye Lancet saw a cluster of needles jutting out, as thin as the woman's own silvery hair.

"Try not to move,” she mumbled.

The drill plunged forward with a sickening crunch.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


by Kaye Jeffreys

The wind blows grit and sand and it stings exposed skin on Kellie's arm. But she can feel it. That's what matters. To feel anything and to think about it is better than to dwell on the void that gnaws her insides like a boring beetle.

Her unit is no more. All that remains are herself, her sister's children, and her own infant that sleeps in her arms, bundled against the wind. Her sister's children are away from this place, retrieved by Dionys Unit, their father's people.

Apollo Unit is here for her. She feels the approach of their multi-rider. She is not ready to go. She can not leave the site where she last saw her own alive before Black Widow took them. An explosion and a collapse and all evidence of Hermes Unit is gone... burned and buried.

Kellie will never see them again.

Black Rim can be merciless and greedy. She rarely releases her dead.


"You made good time," Athena Marie's ancient voice creaked through her scarf as she greeted Logan and Brett.

"Dionys got here before we did?" Logan tightened his face mask against the smell of smoke and sulfer.

"And they are gone already. Black Widow is still murmuring. She may speak again." Athena turned from Logan to his son and focused her one good eye on him. "Brett, you are ready to take Kellie as lifemate for as long or short as this wretched life may be?"

"Does she want me?"

"She chose you. And you accept?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Get her and get out. Widow may open her mouth and swallow us as well."


Kellie sat in the ash looking more like a Nomad cradling her child than a transient miner. She faced Black Widow, head turned up toward the newly collapsed rim that now jetted acrid smoke into the sky through sharp whistling cracks.

"We have come." Brett said.

Kellie didn't move, not even to look up at him.

Brett sat next to her in the ash. There was nothing more to say. Never had so many been lost so quickly in one incident. The weight of the loss hadn't fully impacted him yet. So many faces that he is used to seeing at gatherings, he will not see them any more. Though there will be memorial stones set up for them, no graves will be dug. Black Widow has already devoured them into the bowels of Eclectia. Brett could not imagine what those men, women, and children faced as they went under. It must have been a gaping hell of brimstone and flames.

Black Widow murmered again beneath them. Brett shot up to standing at his first sense of the vibrations.

Kellie remained seated.

Brett bent over and spoke as gently into her ear as the wind and whistling would permit. "We must go on."

Kellie nodded once but made no attempt to get up.

The Widow doesn't always give warnings. It is foolishness to ignore her when she does.

But it is wrong to disturb the grieving of a new widow and to invade the place of her sorrow. Brett wound never do it if there was no danger. But another tremor rumbles under his feet, another warning, from an ancient Widow to a new one. If Kellie won't heed it for herself, she must do so for the sake of her child.

Brett leaned over again, "We must go now." He put his hands on her arms and gently lifted.

To his relief, Kellie didn't resist but cooperated by pushing up with her legs, though her arms never let loose of her infant.

Brett guided her to the multi-rider where his father and sister waited, the staredown between Black Widow and her most recent victim has been broken.


Kellie looks up into the sky as she walks with Brett to the multi-rider. The words of the song they will sing at the time of remembering and raising of the stones flows slowly through her mind.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Here a little, there a little
He gives to us, He takes things away
Blessed is the One who brought us safely here
Blessed is the One who will lead us on
And we must go on

Kaye Jeffreys dedicates this story and the song below to the memory of Walt Staples.